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Proposed amendment may harm government transparency

Neill Fronde

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FILE PHOTO: A new amendment proposing a list of exceptions to governemnt transparency laws has drawn widespread criticism.

Thailand is moving to take 1 step towards transparency and 2 steps back, as a proposed amendment to the Official Information Act moves from the public’s right of access towards protecting state secrets. The new amendment would give exception to disclosure of anything considered to have the potential to harm the monarchy, military affairs and national security.

A chapter named “Information Prohibited from Disclosure” proposes a list of exceptions that eat away at the original intention of the act to allow the public to see government data. The bill also increases punishment for violators of up to 200,000 baht in fines and up to 10 years in prison, a sharp increase from the current 5,000 baht and 3-month penalties. The harsh punishment will likely stop information disclosure that may be considered risky.

A law professor at Thammasat University was stunned by the amendment’s contents that allow the government to control what news and information reach the citizens of Thailand. He sits on the Official Information Board, tasked with regulating transparency and the flow of information, and sees that this draft amendment could supersede the board’s power, removing the independent checks and balances. The Move Forward Party which opposes the current administration called it a step backwards for Thailand.

On May 20, the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand advocated for a review of the proposed amendment in an open letter to PM Prayut Chan-o-cha. The amendment has been met with broad opposition, saying that its move to block transparency for some official information not only undermines the prime minister’s claims of fighting corruption but may also be unconstitutional. The amendment may violate required state transparency as outlined in constitutional clauses.

Critics complain that politicians and state agencies already stall and limit many requests for data, citing budget spending as an overt example, and fear that an amendment like this could further delay transparency to important information. The act already creates many hoops for information requesters by allowing the government broad interpretation of the law.

Citing the loophole to prohibit the media’s ability to analyse the government, the Association of Journalism Students launched a Change.org petition. They plan to present the signatures – it has already gathered 17,000 signatures – to the House of Representatives.

Thailand’s 1991 Constitution called for a right to state information, and in 1997 Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to have a freedom of information law. But over the years, the law had been weakened and eroded, with bias in favour of the government. The current bill was approved by the Cabinet on March 24 after the Prime Minister’s Office proposed it and the amendment against transparency may be debated in the current parliamentary session started last week.

SOURCE: Thai PBS World

 

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Neill is a journalist from the United States with 10 years broadcasting experience and national news and magazine publications. He graduated with a degree in journalism and communications from the University of California and has been living in Thailand since 2014.

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